The Tone Guide

In this post I’d like to introduce you to the tone guide I made for my writing students. Here it is. (Click on it to see a bigger version.)


So helping my students with grammar and style has always been easy. But there was a third element: tone.

Students would ask me tone questions like, “How can I say this in a polite way?” or “Will he understand my feelings if I say it this way?”

Tone questions are very easy to answer in any specific case, but very difficult to put into a curriculum. They say give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he will never go hungry. With tone, I’ve always felt like I was just passing out fish.


For one, the “rules” for tone are entirely unlike the style or grammar rules. I’ll show you what I mean. First, check out some grammar and style rules:

Grammar Rule: The present perfect verb tense is for actions that occurred in the past, but are important now. We either don’t know or don’t care when the actions happened. Say, “I have eaten dinner.” Not, “I have eaten dinner at 7:00 P.M.”

Style Rule: Make actors clear. Avoid the passive voice unless you want to deemphasize the actor (viz. when the actor is unimportant or unknown).

See how clear those are? Easy to understand. Easy to apply.

Now check out some tone “rules” culled from the web:

Tone Rules

Cut ruthlessly. (That’s actually a style rule.)

‘And’ and ‘But’ can be used at the beginning of a sentence. (And that’s actually a grammar rule.)

Stay on track. (They mean have a consistent tone. Fine, but how about getting the tone right in the first place? And what if I want to start with a demanding tone, but end with a friendly tone? Is that never allowed?)

Be confident! (Sometimes, but what if you’re asking for advice? Should you be confident about not being confident?)

Those tone rules are either off-topic or only helpful if you already know what you’re doing. In fact, they aren’t rules at all. They’re just some helpful things to think about as you try and craft your tone. And I shouldn’t run them down so much. The absolute best tone advice out there gives you a couple examples of a tone and suggests you use that language in new situations.

Tone is also unique because while style and grammar are used to deliver a message, tone is part of the message. The right tone is, therefore, just whatever you want the tone to be. And that’s why the tone rules are so vague. We might as well be trying to come up with rules for how to choose a main idea. Your main idea is just whatever you want it to be.

So, to say that you should always have a confident tone is ludicrous. You should have a confident tone if you want to express confidence. You should have a polite tone if you want to be polite. You should have a casual tone if you want to be casual. And so on.

The Tone Guide

Which brings me to my point. It’s impossible to create a set of rules that people should follow when crafting their tone. The same style and grammar rules that serve to make any messsage clear will also make a desired tone clear. Those rules aren’t specific to tone.

What we can do is help students think about tone in an intelligent way and give examples of how various tones are created.

To create my tone guide, I thought about the questions students often asked me and read a bunch of advice on tone. Then I tried to organize all that advice in a helpful way. Here’s what I came up with.

There are three big categories to consider. By making choices in each category, you’re left with a description of the tone you want. You might have a formal-submissive-friendly tone, a casual-polite-friendly tone, or any of the 48 combinations.

Here are a few thoughts on the categories.

(1) Culture Distance

For culture distance, you consider how similar you are to someone. Are you from the same region? Are you in the same department? Are you the same age?  If you’re very different, you’ll use formal language that guards against impropriety. (A phrase like “Sincerely Yours,” is never going to offend anyone, but it won’t excite anyone either.)

Casual or intimate language, on the other hand, is a little risky. The wrong reader might be bothered, but the right reader will find it pleasing. Compare, for instance, the casual ways old people greet each other to the casual ways young people greet each other.

(2) Power Distance

Who’s in charge? A submissive tone indicates that the other person is in charge. They might be your boss or you might be asking them to make a decision. (Like, you might be visiting your sister and you want her to choose the restaurant.)

A polite tone means you want to collaborate. You’ll both give your opinion and check to see what the other person thinks.

The direct tone is for situations where you don’t care about the reader’s opinions, but you can’t boss them around either. Like you might be an expert telling a journalist about a topic. Or you might be hiring a freelancer to work for you.

Then there’s commanding. This is when you are in charge. The other person has to follow your words and you both know it.

(Note that people go wrong when they think friendly/casual and commanding can’t go together. You can be a casual, friendly, commanding boss. Or you can be a formal, inoffensive, commanding boss. You can be commanding in lots of different ways.)

(3) Courtesy

How nice do you want to be? You can be friendly, inoffensive, or offensive. The inoffensive tone is very sparse. The friendly and offensive tones are created with added language–like a friendly question or an insult.

* * * * *

The end of the guide is the beginning of clear writing. Students will be left with a general description of their desired tone. This doesn’t mean that all the questions have been answered. The tone guide offers nothing on questions like, “How do I create a joyful tone?” But the most important questions will have been answered.  Armed with the knowledge of their desired tone, students can then look at samples with their desired tone and copy key language. More on that soon.


  1. That was really interesting and useful. I teach Grade 11 and 12. And talking in the right tone is a question frequently asked by my students. This sure has helped.

  2. Great article – I’ve never thought to include tone in my lessons. It will be a great way to generate some energy in the class. Thank you.

  3. Thanks Heather. I think of this guide as just the start of teaching tone. So far, I’ve only made a few worksheets to go with it. Would absolutely love to hear how you use it in the class. Would you mind commenting later and letting me know how it goes?


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